Emerging Horizons: The Birth of an Ocean in the Most Inhospitable Land


In 2005, a series of catastrophic events shook the Afar region, one of the most infamous and inhospitable places on Earth. A staggering 420 earthquakes and volcanic activities triggered the emergence of a massive 60-kilometer-long fissure that has the potential to divide the African continent into two separate landmasses. This extraordinary phenomenon marks the inception of a new ocean, a geological transformation that experts believed would take somewhere between 5 to 10 million years to materialize. However, recent scientific findings have challenged this estimate, suggesting that the birth of the oceanic rift might unfold sooner than anticipated.

Geoscientist Cynthia Ebinger, a renowned authority on this subject, has dedicated decades of her life to researching the geological dynamics of the Afar region. With an unparalleled expertise in her field, Ebinger is a researcher at Tulane University in the United States and has authored numerous publications, including notable works featured in prestigious scientific journals like Nature. Her groundbreaking research has been cited over 16,000 times by her colleagues, solidifying her contributions to the field.

Among Ebinger’s most influential articles is her 1998 Nature publication titled “Cenozoic magmatism across East Africa resulting from the impact of a single hot spot.” This seminal piece, cited more than 900 times, explores the impact of magma on the Ethiopian plateau and its correlation to Cenozoic volcanism across East Africa. Ebinger’s research highlights the vast volumes of magma present in the Ethiopian highlands and East Africa, revealing the complex network of volcanic systems in the region, including the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the East African rift systems.

One of the key factors contributing to the emergence of the new ocean is an underground volcano located in Ethiopia. Ebinger explains that this volcano acts as a barrier preventing a substantial body of saltwater from passing through. The area where this volcano is situated sits at the convergence of three tectonic plates: the Somalian, African (also known as Nubian), and Arabian plates. The pressure exerted by these plates, particularly on the Victoriana plate, has the potential to bring about a separation and movement of a portion of the Somali plate towards the Indian Ocean. This movement would widen the rupture in the plate collision, creating the conditions necessary for the formation of an oceanic rift.

Although many refer to this phenomenon as a new ocean, Ebinger advises caution when using that term. The evidence supporting this notion predominantly stems from the 2005 mega-event. In September of that year, a desolate region in Ethiopia experienced 420 powerful earthquakes that violently shook the earth. These seismic activities coincided with significant volcanic eruptions, releasing large amounts of ash into the atmosphere.

In 2009, Ethiopian geophysicist Atalay Ayele, from Addis Ababa University, spearheaded a research project that provided further credence to the theory. Ayele and his team identified three magma sources in the Dabbahu-Gab’ho and Ado’Ale volcanic complexes, with the second source being the largest and the origin of a significant portion of the flow. In an article published in the Geophysical Research Letters, Ayele stated that this “volcanic-tectonic crisis” would eventually lead to the formation of an incipient oceanic rift. In response to BBC Brazil’s inquiry about the study, Ayele confirmed that multiple rupture activities were already in motion, and as the Eurasian and African plates continued to collide, new mountain ranges, akin to the Alps, would be formed.

However, despite these remarkable findings, experts emphasize that the geological process unfolding in the Afar region will require millennia, if not centuries, to complete. While the seismic map provides compelling evidence of an emerging oceanic rift, its full realization will necessitate millions and millions of years of geological activity.

In conclusion, the birth of a new ocean in the Afar region stands as an extraordinary testament to the Earth’s ever-evolving nature. This geological phenomenon, catalyzed by a series of earthquakes and volcanic activities, has isolated the region as one of the harshest and most extreme environments on the planet. As researchers like Cynthia Ebinger and Atalay Ayele unravel the complexities of this remarkable transformation, the world eagerly awaits the unfolding of a geological marvel that will shape the future of Africa and the world.